If you want to essentially toss a live hand grenade among a bunch of anime fans, then all you have to do is start the debate on whether “subs” or “dubs” are better. If you haven’t figured it out, “subs” are subtitled anime with the original Japanese voice track and “dubs” are English-dubbed shows.

On balance, most anime fans have been stalwart supporters of subtitled shows, but there’s always a vocal group who will have none of that. Of course, only a few shows actually get dubbed into English, but when given the choice here are the arguments for and against each option.

anime show

The Case for Subs

What are the advantages of subtitled anime? Well, for one thing, subtitling a show is much faster than creating an English dub for it. It’s normal now for shows to be simulcast with English subtitles ready to go. Assuming that a dub is even coming, it could be weeks or months before it’s ready.

Subtitles also allow for more accurate translations. Dubs often take liberties with the translation to make the words match the mouth movements of the characters. Speaking of which, even if you don’t understand a lick of Japanese the actual performances of the voice actors are still there. This is a very important point because the original cast is actually directed by the director of the show; this is how the show is meant to be seen. In general, the Japanese cast are professional anime actors – this is what they do and do well.

The Case Against Subs

The main issue with subs is that they can be a distraction from the visuals. This really depends on the reading skills of the viewer. I suspect a lot of people who don’t like subtitles simply don’t enjoy reading or can’t do it fluently enough, for some reason.

Death Note

The Case for Dubs

The main argument for dubs is that they allow the viewer to just watch the show, with less cognitive load. No weird language processing and no distractions – just switch it on and sit back.

The Case Against Dubs

Well, here comes the flame-fuel. While some people make a purist argument in favor of subtitles, the truth of the matter is that the majority of dubbed anime is simply awful to listen to. Voice actors are ACTORS; not just people that read lines into a microphone. No matter how good the story is in a show, if the performances are awful then the show is ruined.

While there are plenty of excellent professional Japanese actors who do anime, in the US (where most of the dubbing happens) the voice talent that made it into studios were frankly z-list. Even those who weren’t just awful suffered from insane time pressure and slipshod direction.

Another reason why dubbed anime often turns out awful is a misdirected attempt at emulating the vocal tone and style of the Japanese actors. Unfortunately, the high-pitched voices and rapid speech of some anime just don’t translate well to English. This does not mean that the voice acting in the original tracks are always fantastic, but on average I think you’re much more likely to get a dud if you opt for the English version of a show.

That is, if the show you’re looking at is older than 2010. As anime has become more mainstream and dubbing studios have improved, so have the quality of the performances. It can still be hit and miss, but now that companies like Netflix are paying for the production of anime, most new anime have at the very least a tolerable dub. The only pre-2010 anime that’s safe for sure are those dubbed by Disney, which is most of the Ghibli films. These titles have AAA actors in them and it shows.

Pick Your Anime Poison

In the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Give both subs and dubs a try and find out for yourself which of them is the one with the fewest compromises. Of course, the third choice would be to learn Japanese and just enjoy the original show as it was meant to be. Hey, it sounds crazy but plenty of dedicated fans have done just that!

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